The New York Philharmonic has close ties to other renowned composers: it commissioned and world-premiered Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony, now regarded as one of the greatest works in the canon. But our hometown orchestra wears no connection prouder than its relationship with Gustav Mahler. Not only did the Austrian conductor-composer lead the Philharmonic in the last years of his life, but the orchestra is, in large part, responsible for the 60s-era resurgence in his popularity, thanks to the tireless advocacy of uber-fan Leonard Bernstein.
The 2010-2011 season marks the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death—it’s also the centennial, give or take, of his music-directorship. To celebrate, the Phil will present several of his symphonies and other works throughout the season; it kicked off with this week’s performances of Symphony No. 6 in A Minor.
Before he assumed the Mahler-mantle as current musical director, Alan Gilbert led the Philharmonic in a performance of the Third Symphony, and the general reaction was that Gilbert’s skills as a Mahler interpreter could use some honing. Aside from musicality issues, there’s a boyishness to Alan Gilbert that can make it difficult to take him seriously when he tackles something as hefty as Mahler’s “tragic” symphony. But at Thursday night’s performance, he handled well the piece’s dynamic leaps, relishing the loud-quiet-louds. The tightly contained performance may have begun to unravel at the finale, but overall Gilbert proved himself an adept study and a worthy holder of his august post. (No big surprise there!)
Mahler’s Sixth is a work of manic-depressive emotional extremes (particularly under Gilbert’s baton). It opens with a tone-setting martial march (listen below), reminiscent of late Romantics like Brahms and Dvorak but with the anxiety mega-multiplied. Still, the piece often opens into passages of lush joy, like flourishing verdancy following replenishing storms. (It often reminded me of Holst’s “The Planets,” with interstitial lulls like drifting through empty deep-space, before confrontations with titanic behemoths of stone and gas.) But every romantic moment seems ultimately to curdle. At one moment, a prettily fluttering violin sounds like it chokes on its own octave leap. Much Romantic music sounds like this—a struggle to attain, or then to sustain, joy—but rarely do the stakes feel as high as they do in this work. And rarely is this push and pull so dispiritingly lost.
This symphony always falls back into a tick-tick-tick rhythm, scariest when played by the timpani, evoking the inescapable tromp of death. Tragedy looms over the work, reaching its apotheosis in the soul-smashing sledgehammers that punctuate the finale. (No doubt, this is what Thor’s hammer sounds like when struck.) Every near triumphal ending proves a bust, until the work dies out in minor-chord misery (listen below). This is not just like how Mahler himself would die a few years later, but surely how we all die: at the antithesis of triumphal resolution.
Hear Bernstein conduct the first 10 minutes…
…and the last: